I first met Sam Hitchcock when I was a bright-eyed 21-year-old, working my first ever TV job in Christchurch.
She's the kind of girl you get an instant friend crush on - funny, beautiful and calm - not to mention the fact that she's a talented ballroom dancer who was that year the standout performer on Dancing with the Stars.
We became fast friends. But as so often happens at that age, time moved us in different directions. Our paths rarely crossed, but I kept up with her adventures on Facebook, and we'd chat online when our time zones matched.
In 2012, there was a change on her timeline. The same handsome man was popping up next to her in almost every photo - some long-haired mountain biker with a smile that took up most of his face. She told me his name was Kelly McGarry, and she was in love.From afar I watched her go through these wonderful stages of love - her and Kelly becoming more and more comfortable together, building a life. They travelled the world, he competed in some serious looking mountain bike events, they bought a puppy, and then a house. They settled in Queenstown. I was happy for her.
On a Monday in February, I turned up at work to find people huddled around a TV. It was big news that day. Kelly McGarry had died. I watched and read news reports which told of Kelly's friends and colleagues mourning his loss. All I could think about was Sam. Where was she? Did she have good people around her? I wondered about the tears she was crying, whether she had someone to hold her while she sobbed. I wanted to call, but I didn't know what to say.
I reached out to her on Facebook to say how sorry I was and then later I was in touch with her again to talk to her as a reporter and bring her story to television.
Seeing her again reminded me again of what an incredibly brave, gentle woman she is. Her strength brought me to tears more than once during our interview. It all seems so unfair, losing the love of your life at 32, just as you were about to start a family. Everything she'd planned for her future was gone, just like that.
But the real reason I wanted to do this story was her attitude towards her loss, and the advice she wants to pass on to others. Many of us have experienced grief in some way during the course of our lives, and for all of us her words are invaluable. I wish I'd had her around when I lost my sister in a car accident many years ago. I was told that grief had to look a certain way, included a certain amount of crying, and could only be brought on by certain rituals like seeing the body, writing letters, or speaking at the funeral. I did some of those things, and some of them helped. But what didn't help was having the pressure of what my sadness was supposed to look like.
Sam's greatest gift to me is the advice that grief isn't something you get over. It's a weight you learn to carry, a sadness you absorb, and slowly the burden becomes less and less. She says there's no right way to be, you need to trust that how you feel is how you're meant to be feeling. And amazingly, she says at some point in the journey, there's a choice to be made. Do you let the grief and sadness keep you in bed all day, avoid new experiences, and in doing so essentially lose your life too? Or do you choose to not just exist, but to truly live; to attack life, to choose joy, knowing that your loved one would want nothing more than for you to smile again.
Tune in to Story tonight to watch Sam Hitchcock tell her story of love, loss and redemption. 7pm TV3